Don't Be a Hero, Ask for Help




I recently had a conversation with one of my CEO clients about how best to help the senior leadership team embrace a new product innovation idea. This CEO was frustrated that the team seemed resistant to the changes the innovation would require and was wondering how to proceed. We discussed two options: asking the team to collaborate on a business plan for the new product, or, providing them with a concrete plan and asking them to implement it. 


The CEO chose the first approach – having the team own the plan – and, although it took longer, it ultimately ended in a more ambitious (and successful!) product. 


This is a classic example of how asking for help can boost organizations’ resilience to the fear that is associated with productization. If a team is part of deciding on the parameters of change, they will be less afraid of it. The psychology behind this is fascinating: studies show that when we ask for teammates’ input, advice, or expertise, we show belief in their intelligence and capabilities. In turn, our colleagues feel more motivated to change their behaviors. In other words, the CEO didn’t just ask his team for feedback: by asking for their help, he showed his team that he believed in their ability to develop a knock-out product innovation strategy. 


Unfortunately, asking for help–and the skills required for effective collaboration more broadly–is not something that comes naturally to most of us. 


Asking for help can evoke a variety of fears: of looking stupid, of being rejected, of not being perfect, of losing control over a process that is personally and professionally meaningful. It requires letting go of these insecurities and your own vision for your product and organization. Asking for help can and likely will change your product strategy in ways you haven’t thought about yet. That can be a very good thing. 


In this article, we describe how creating a culture of helpfulness is necessary for productizing organizations. We will cover: 

  • What the science tells about why asking for help is rewarding, even if it feels so difficult;
  • Why seeking help is a necessary behavior for pursuing a productization strategy; and
  • How to ask for help effectively and consistently


Why It’s So Difficult to Ask For Help 

In her book Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You, Heidi Grant highlights the neuroscience of why asking for help can feel so incredibly difficult. Citing the work of social psychologist Naomi Eisenberger, who has shown that social pain is processed in the same regions of the brain that process physical pain, Grant argues that all five types of social pain–fears of uncertainty, rejection, and being treated unfairly, as well as a loss of social status and personal autonomy–are evoked in the act of asking for help. Grant writes:

When you seek support from someone else, it opens up the possibility that you will experience all five kinds of social pain at the same time. By making a request of another person, many people at least unconsciously feel that they have lowered their status and invited ridicule or scorn, particularly when the help request means revealing a lack of knowledge or ability. Since you don’t know how the person will answer, you’ve lowered your sense of certainty. And since you have no choice but to accept their answer, whatever it is, you’ve surrendered some of your autonomy as well. If they say no, it can feel like a personal rejection, creating a relatedness threat. And, of course, that “no” almost certainly won’t feel very fair (15). 


The takeaway is that risking any of these situations can be scary enough to simply not make an ask: even asking for something as small as a seat on a subway, Grant suggests, is difficult enough to make us avoid doing so altogether (7).  


But taking the chance on asking for help is an important prosocial behavior that increases connection and collaboration, while reducing fear. As my client observed, asking for help gives other people a sense of purpose, which Grant suggests is far more motivating than either pleasure-seeking or pain-avoidance (107). Moreover, modeling a culture of helping facilitates psychological safety, a fact that is at least partly attributable to humans’ strong obligation to return a favor. Wayne Baker, Professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and designer of the Reciprocity Ring states, “the norm of reciprocity is so powerful that you can generally expect help if you’ve helped others. This also yields a psychological benefit for those wary of reaching out —it’s much easier to reconcile asking for help when you yourself have been helpful.” 


When we ask for help, we offer our network an opportunity to feel good: we offer a chance to feel connected and purposeful. 


But the benefits aren’t only experienced by those we ask to assist us. Getting the help you need to productize successfully is of course the ultimate goal. And evidence suggests that contrary to what our fears tell us, we are more well-liked after asking for help than before. 


Seeking help is not a detriment to our status as leaders: it is a behavior that can grow our teams’ motivation to collaborate across the company


Seeking Help Leads to Bolder Product Innovations 

Asking for help is a collaborative behavior, and mastering it has significant benefits. The Great Work Study, conducted by the O.C. Tanner Institute showed that 72% of people who receive awards for their work ask for advice, help, insights, and opinions from people outside of their inner circle. In doing so, those workers generate fresh ideas and perspectives on how to solve problems that they otherwise wouldn’t have imagined. 


The business case for effective collaboration–and especially asking for help–is that doing so can save time and resources. As product leaders, we know how important it is to receive consistent, quality feedback while developing and launching a good product. Investors are in a great position to provide advice that either validates your idea or helps you make it better, so that your team can move forward without a lot of investment in time and resources.      


Customers, too, can be helpful collaborators. Customer-centric co-creation is an ask for help that provides insight into customers’ urgent and expensive problems and ideas for how to help solve those problems. The Lego Ideas Portal is a compelling example. Lego uses the Ideas Portal to enlist the help of customers to suggest, iterate, and evaluate ideas for new Lego kits. Customers log in to the Ideas Portal to submit an idea and the over 875,000 customers who are “members’ of the Ideas Portal vote on kits they want to see on shelves. The process reduces the time to market for new kits from two years to six months. Better yet, every single kit developed through the Ideas Portal has been a best seller. 


Interestingly, however, when collaboration falters–which is more often than we think–it is because a desire to maintain personal status gets in the way of the respectful, experimental, learning mindset that characterizes strong collaboration. It’s not for nothing that a fear of losing one’s status is also at the heart of why so many of us struggle to ask for help: collaboration and seeking help can both put the limits of our knowledge and expertise on display. To address failed collaborations, Francesca Gino, Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, argues that we must not only value collaboration, but teach it, including improving listening, empathy, teamwork, and communication skills across the organization.


To this list, I would add asking for help. In my experience, the most effective collaborative teams are those who make seeking help a normal, consistent part of their process. 


Simple Tactics That Make Asking for Help Easier

Asking for help may never feel good or easy. But there are simple tactics for making a request that encourages givers to lend help and promotes helpfulness across your team. 

1. Be Prepared With Requests

In his research and work with Reciprocity Ring, Wayne Baker notes that participants often find themselves unprepared with smart requests when the opportunity to seek help from a mentor, friend, colleague, or connection arises. He suggests spending time thinking through a current project and making a list of resources needed for the project. More holistically, these requests might come from mindful reflection on your goals, and the means you may need to accomplish those goals. Getting prepared to ask for the help you need is part and parcel to listening to your intuition


Reflecting on your goals doesn’t need to be a solitary exercise. Creating processes that build reflection and ideation into your team’s workflow can help you see opportunities and resources that you hadn’t thought about, and which might provide chances to seek help within your network. 


2. Make a Precise Request

People don’t know what you need: you need to tell them! Baker suggests articulating your requests SMARTly: make sure that your ask is Specific, Meaningful, Action-oriented, Real, and Time-bound. In other words, tell your helper exactly what you need, why you need it, how they can help, and when you need help. And make sure that your request meets an authentic, real need within your organization.  

Customer advisory boards are often extremely useful for generating strong feedback on product ideas and design. Getting great feedback from a customer advisory board, however, depends a lot on how you ask for it. Advisory boards respond best when faced with specific, and especially meaningful, requests for feedback. To be meaningful, feedback needs to respond to a specific goal. For example, if you want a more user-friendly interface, you could consider asking customers for design ideas or asking them to pinpoint problem areas, or to consider both questions. The questions you ask should depend on the information your team needs—ideas, understanding—to solve the problem.


3. Offer Help When Asked

As the research in this article confirms, helping others feels good, and we like to do it. But Baker also points out that when you consistently and generously help others, other people are also more likely to want to help you. This is not about establishing quid pro quo relationships, but instead about mindfully nourishing a culture of helpfulness around us and our immediate community. 

Product leaders can offer to help their teams by not only by creating more support and processes that encourage help seeking, but also by actively participating in strategies like design sprints that bring teams together to think through problems. Doing so allows you to learn more about what your team might need to succeed and makes you more available for requests when they come up. And humble participation demonstrates to teams that ongoing learning and experimentation is important at all levels of the organization. 


Vecteris’s proven process for productization can make asking for help easier as your organization learns to collaborate effectively. Our upcoming Spark Productize PathwayTM Boot Camp, a cohort-based learning experience designed for business owners and product leaders, provides an opportunity to do exactly that. Following the Productize Pathway™ approach outlined in the book Productize, our 12-week boot camp helps you to standardize and tech-enable your services successfully. Working alongside other leaders, you will finish with a well-tested product concept that's ready to be developed. Interested in learning more? Schedule some time to chat through your ideas.